Q&A: Leo Burnett CEO on how the industry is "psyching women out".

Rachael Micallef
By Rachael Micallef | 3 March 2015

Following on from a recent article, Do women over 30 "disappear" from adland, we sat down with Leo Burnett Melbourne CEO Melinda Geertz for an indepth Q&A.

Q: What do you think is the main barrier to women reaching senior leadership positions in agencies?

Melinda Geertz: Unfortunately, I think our industry is good at psyching women out – just when they’re in full stride. We send signals – explicitly and implicitly - that, unless you’re prepared to work 24/7, you can’t cut it in a senior role in the business. So when women hit their late 20s or 30s – and are choosing to have children – we lose them. It’s a time in their lives when they need agencies to give them flexibility and help support both priorities – work and family. And there is still this idea that, in a service industry like ours, that doesn’t wash.

I was one of the lucky ones. I worked four days a week for nearly eight years when my three children were little. If I hadn’t been able to do that, I’m not sure I would have stuck around, and I’d be another statistic. I’m grateful for the support that some very enlightened men at Leo Burnett gave me at the time.

If we want to hold talented women in our agencies, we have to quit asserting that “killer hours” are the only way to the top, and we have to support flexibility. There is a war for talent, and it’s in all of our interests to stop the leaky bucket when it comes to women in their mid-careers.

Q: The explicit issues are fairly evident looking at salary, or a lack of women in leadership positions etc. But what are the implicit issues that women experience?

MG: There are volumes of studies and research that tell us women lead differently. Women are more collaborative; men find it easier to speak up and put themselves forward. So it’s easier for men to see “leaders” in other men, and that becomes self-perpetuating.

I see it all the time. Men put their hand up; women wait their turn. A senior woman in our agency was telling me the other day that she still can’t believe it every time she sees her “big title” on an email. Her modesty is so compelling to me, and yet it’s that lack of self-promotion that often holds women back.

I also see the guilt trap for mothers with young children. So many of these women feel they are subject to a more critical lens. The whispering is real: Are they really committed? Women feel this big time, and it makes them anxious. One woman who recently came to our agency used to feel the need to tell me when she would be 15 minutes late because of the school run. Crazy as it sounds, she felt pressure to explain herself. Here is this brilliant woman who blows me away every day with her ability – and yet, she had been conditioned to believe that her family life was in competition with her professional commitment.

Q: Is the level of support different in Australia to overseas?

MG: I can only comment on this from my personal experience. I look back at my early years at Leo Burnett in Chicago, and there were so many women in top jobs. And, importantly, many of the agency’s top creative directors were women. That clearly had an influence on me. It surprised me when I moved here that it was so male-dominated.

Q: Has the level of support for women changed?

MG: I guess being a female CEO who’s “been there” makes supporting other women second nature for me. I know the obstacles; I know the challenges. I don’t think it’s just an issue of flexibility; I think it’s fundamentally creating a culture that welcomes a different kind of collaboration, dynamic and group conversation. I am a firm believer that teams with men and women are simply more effective. And the science backs it up. Half of our agency’s leadership team is women, and we all see that as an advantage.

Q: What is the solution?

MG: The Gender Diversity Study, commissioned by The Communications Council, was a great initiative. It put the issue out there with facts. And I was so encouraged to see men embrace its importance.

I do believe there are lots of great men in our industry who want this to change. Some are setting targets, and if having a “metric” helps make an agency more focused on the issue of supporting women to succeed, then surely that’s a good thing.

Through my own experience, I realize how vital it is to start the conversation about “leaning in” with women early in their careers. Mentoring has to be part of the solution for retention of future women leaders. I feel a tremendous responsibility for that, and I know other senior women do, too.

There are some other pretty basic things agencies can do. I hear people talk about the shortage of female talent in the creative area, and yet young women represent almost half of the students in Award School. It seems like an obvious point, but why not hire them?

Q: There is a lot of high level talk about gender equality being a high priority. Is it just rhetoric or do you think things are changing?

MG: I hope it’s not just rhetoric. And I do believe many have the right intentions. But I still hear some men at the top talk about how “it’s just the way it is” and “it’s the nature of our business”. Nothing will change overnight. This is an issue that’s been around for a very long time – in our industry and others – and we just have to keep pressing for change. We all know the value of talent, and women are half of that pool. It’s common sense – and good commercial sense - to do something about it.

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